Ag Today, December 9, 2021

California dairy farmers struggle to stay in the ‘Got Milk’ state [Wall Street Journal]

Dairy farmers in California, the nation’s top milk producer, face pressure from rising costs, increasingly complex environmental regulations and a quest for water—challenges all magnified by a historic drought. For some, the challenges are existential. In the north coast, home to the state’s small, organic dairy farms, shrunken reservoirs and shriveled pastures pushed some farmers to the brink earlier this year. In the San Joaquin Valley—a vast agricultural region in the center of the state where 90% of California’s milk is produced—farmers are paying more for cow feed and water, driving up the cost of producing a gallon of milk. California’s milk production, combined with dairy processing, brings more than $20 billion annually to the state economy. Dairy is the top farm industry by revenue in California, the nation’s biggest agricultural state. Growing challenges have spurred a shift in the past decade, prompting some California dairy farmers to move, shut down, or turn to growing crops. Recurring droughts are now intensifying their struggles, boosting milk sheds further east and threatening the state’s dairy-capital status, according to farmers, agricultural economists and industry groups.


Caldor Fire arrests: Father, son held on suspicion of sparking wildfire that burned near Tahoe [Sacramento Bee]

A father and son have been taken into custody on suspicion of sparking the massive Caldor fire that erupted Aug. 14 near Grizzly Flat in El Dorado County, authorities say. David Scott Smith, 66, of Somerset, and his son, Travis Shane Smith, 32, of Folsom, are accused of reckless arson in the fire that burned 221,835 acres in El Dorado, Amador and Alpine counties – and forced the evacuation of South Lake Tahoe – before it was finally contained in October, two sources told The Sacramento Bee. The two were taken into custody on what authorities refer to as a “Ramey warrant” that is issued before criminal charges are formally filed, sources say, and the pair are expected to be charged in El Dorado Superior Court. Sacramento attorney Mark Reichel, who represents both men, said Travis Smith is an electrician who was with his father near the site of the fire’s origin east of Omo Ranch and south of Grizzly Flat and saw the flames, then called 911 to report it. “Obviously, he clearly states that he did not set the fire. He only called it in,” Reichel said.


California considers $500 fines for water wasters as drought worsens, conservation lags [Los Angeles Times]

As California descends deeper into drought, officials are growing increasingly troubled by dwindling water supplies and the public’s lackluster response to calls for conservation, with residents in recent months falling short of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request for a voluntary 15% reduction in usage. Now, as the West tips toward crisis, state water regulators are considering adopting emergency regulations that will prohibit certain actions in an attempt to curtail water waste and help conserve supplies. If approved, the proposal could usher in a wave of water regulations that hearken back to previous droughts while underscoring the seriousness of the current one. On Tuesday, Lake Mead — the nation’s largest reservoir and a lifeline for water in Los Angeles and the West — was at 1,065 feet, or about 34% of its capacity, a near-historic low. Much of California on the U.S. Drought Monitor map was painted in worrisome shades of red. For many, the measures feel like déjà vu as California again faces the prospect of dwindling water supplies. In 2014, then-Gov. Jerry Brown introduced similar bans on watering at the start of an impending drought. Within a year, Brown had instituted mandatory water-use cuts statewide — a move widely seen as successful, with water use dropping by nearly 25%. Amid the cuts, desiccated lawns and shorter showers became commonplace across the region.


Alameda judge orders a statewide halt to use of pesticide harmful to honeybees [San Francisco Chronicle]

A judge has sided with environmental groups and announced a statewide halt to use of the pesticide sulfoxaflor, which kills insects on many crops but is toxic to honeybees. The state Department of Pesticide Regulation, under Gov. Gavin Newsom, lifted California’s ban on sulfoxaflor and approved limited use of the chemical in the spring of 2020. The department said its application on crops would have an overall beneficial effect and, in court filings, dismissed predictions of damage to bees as “speculative.” But Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch said opponents had presented substantial scientific evidence of significant harm to bees and other pollinators, evidence that was not seriously addressed by either the state agency or manufacturers of the pesticide. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first approved sulfoxaflor in 2013 despite finding that it was “very highly toxic” to honeybees. California, which has its own pesticide laws, first approved limited use last year.


Cover crops in vineyards mitigate erosion, boost soil nutrients [Napa Valley Register]

When the winter rains come to Napa Valley, soil erosion is at the top of many viticulturists’ minds. Terracing and other structural changes to the terroir are largely a mitigation method of the past, with many vineyards planting the grassy patches between their rows with mustards, legumes, and grasses as cover crops. And while the blooming yellows of mustard certainly brighten up Napa’s landscape each year, these widespread plants have important ecological benefits as well. “It’s all about watershed protection,” said Molly Moran Williams, Industry and Community Relations Director for the Napa Valley Grapegrowers. “Cover crops on hillsides prevent erosion, which, in return, protects our river and watershed.” In Napa Valley, viticulturists often use a blend of different plants, but across the board, mustards are the go-to option for most vineyards. The composition of the mustard plant and its root system suppresses the nematodes, pushing them deeper into the soil and thus eliminating the pest problem. Other types of cover crop are also used to account for nutrient deficiencies or overloads in the soil, with nitrogen being the clearest example that is monitored in this way.


Wine and NHL mogul Bill Foley buys Sonoma’s Chateau St. Jean with plans to restore its former glory [San Francisco Chronicle]

A famous Wine Country landmark has changed hands in an effort to restore it to its former glory. Foley Family Wines, a fast-growing conglomerate that owns more than two dozen high-end wineries around the world, has purchased Chateau St. Jean from Australian wine giant Treasury Wine Estates. Foley hopes to reestablish Chateau St. Jean’s reputation for upscale wines, as opposed to the lower-tier bottlings that Treasury had promoted in recent years. That approach fits with trends in the wine market, which has seen sales of more expensive wines grow faster than sales of less expensive wines during the last decade. “The intended strategy for St. Jean is to bring it back to Sonoma winemaking prominence,” said Gerard Thoukis, Foley Family Wines’ chief marketing officer. The company has a knack for acquiring estates whose glory is somewhat faded. That was the case with Ferrari-Carano, which Foley purchased in 2020; the Sonoma County winery once had a wide, devoted following that diminished in recent years. It was especially true of Monterey County’s Chalone, which was considered among California’s top wineries in the 1970s (and a favorite of Julia Child’s) but had suffered a series of business and wine-quality setbacks by the time Foley purchased it in 2016. Chateau St. Jean fits into that strategy neatly.


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